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New era for gunmaker Westley Richards

For close on 200 years the Birmingham gun trade has been truly enhanced, if not dominated, by the presence of the gunmaking company Westley Richards, which was founded in 1812 and which, in the course of its distinguished passage over nearly two centuries, has been responsible for numerous developments in gunmaking, not least the Anson & Deeley hammerless action, patented in 1875, of which more later.

Today, Westley Richards is distinguished by being, sadly, the last genuine in-house gunmaker left in Birmingham, a role which might induce the unknowing to indulge in a sense of uneasy foreboding for the future of gunmaking in that great city. Indeed, the Westley Richards factory at Bournbrook, built in 1894, is about to be razed to the ground to make way for further city development and, in that sense, one must feel a great sense of regret in the knowledge that this factory, once described as “The Workshop of the World” and incorporating all the latest technology for the period, is about to be destroyed.

But, Phoenix-like, Westley Richards is not just rising from the ashes but is about to create gunmaking history by expanding into new, purpose-built premises, some three miles from the present Bournbrook site and close to the old gunmaking quarter.Simon Clode, owner and managing director of Westley Richards, has been with the company for 20 years. He explained to me that the new, £4.5 million establishment, encompassing 20,000ft², will have two buildings. One will incorporate the wide range of gun-related leatherwork, for which the showroom is already distinguished.

The other will have a retail outlet on its lower floor, which Simon’s daughter, Karena, who joined the firm two-and-a-half years ago, will help manage, and the upper floor will be occupied by the gunmaking department, employing all 13 of the present team, including Ken Halbert, an actioner who, after 31 years with Westley Richards, is officially “retired” but still working three to four days a week. There will also be a rifle range at the new premises, just as at Bournbrook, to test and regulate rifles. It is said that it was the custom at Westley Richards’ original premises at No 82, High Street, close to the old Bull Ring, for workmen to test-fire rifles from the windows of the workplace, presumably into empty ground.

Westley Richards has neither had cause nor inducement in its recent history to trumpet itself or its wares. There simply was no need, as the factory has been so busy. As Simon Clode says, “We are fortunate enough to have had a steady stream of new and loyal clients and they have kept us very busy. We already have a retail enterprise in Montana, which serves our American client base, and we have always been keen to present a comprehensive range of quality shooting essentials to the UK market. The relocation has enabled us to showcase our entire operation and, from the moment you walk into our new premises, you’ll know you’re in a place dedicated to shooting.”

As Westley Richards enters this fresh and exciting phase of its celebrated career, there can be little doubt that the shadow of William Westley Richards, who founded the firm three years before the Battle of Waterloo, would be quietly satisfied to know that the company that Colonel Peter Hawker referred to as “Joe Manton the second” ? an accolade indeed ? is, in this 21st century, not just existing, but thriving.

An illustrious past

It is worth taking a brief glance at the history of the company in order to understand the singularly important role it has played in the world of gunmaking. William Westley Richards came from a sound family of Midlands merchants, many of whom had been engaged in the silversmith and jewellery trade, and one in particular was a gunmaker in 1770. It is not known with whom, or where, William acquired his skills in the business of making firearms, but he was a keen and practical man who, over the years, engaged the loyalty and love of his workmen. He was responsible for a number of patents in the development of firearms, one of which, in 1831, was a means of vastly improving the detonating system then replacing the age of flint. It is also significant that, in 1840, the firm received the Royal Warrant to HRH Prince Albert and, nine years later, Peter Hawker eulogised over the Birmingham factory, noting that it “surpasses all the gun establishments I ever saw or heard of”.

In 1815, only three years after founding the firm, William opened a shop at 170 New Bond Street, London, and installed therein, as his representative, the remarkable William Bishop, an eccentric character who proved to be an excellent salesman. Known throughout the shooting world as the Bishop of Bond Street, he was invariably habited in a long black tailcoat, white apron and a top hat which, legend has it, he never removed from his head, even when in bed! A remarkable character, with a penchant for a rat hunt, cock fight or a bout of fisticuffs, the Bishop was also deeply attached to a little dog called Tiny ? when it died in 1844, at the age of 15, he had it buried in a tomb built in a wall at the Bond Street premises and marked with an extensive paean of praise.

An indomitable leader

The founder’s eldest son, Westley Richards, was born in 1814, and it can be said that while the father had ability, the son enjoyed outstanding ability and indomitable perseverance. However, it must also be agreed that while the parent was loved by his workmen, the son was admired, but also feared and was considered a hard and determined man. Nevertheless, it was he who drove the company forward and who gave the shooting world a series of brilliant mechanical inventions, including the breechloading capping rifle in 1858, the first such rifle to be used by the British Army; the top-lever and solid rib extension a year later; the falling-block rifle in 1868, which was the forerunner of the Martini service arm, and the solid-drawn cartridge.

Perhaps most notable of all the inventions attributed to the firm was the celebrated Anson & Deeley lock system, patented in 1873 to John Deeley, which abolished the need for external hammers on a shotgun and reduced the number of parts by 15. Today, the Anson & Deeley system is still in use and must remain as Westley Richards’ most significant contribution to the world of shotgun shooting.

Westley Richards has long maintained a reputation, not only for the production of top-grade hand-built shotguns, but also for a wide range of rifles, in particular those required by sportsmen abroad for a variety of soft-skinned and dangerous game. In 1912, the firm produced a centenary catalogue of 211 pages crammed with superbly illustrated details of their full range of guns, rifles and equipment. Notable among the many firearms are double- and single-barrelled stalking rifles in .256, .275, .280, .303 and .318 calibres, at prices ranging from 25 to 80 guineas, and a series of big-game rifles in calibres from .375 to .600 magnum. A .577 double ejector, firing a 750-grain bullet in front of 100 grains of cordite, weighed 14lb and cost £85 guineas.

Shotguns then included an extensive range of boxlocks, hammerguns, sidelocks, wildfowling guns and also early over-and-unders, priced at 30 to 50 guineas and which were to develop into the well-known Ovundo shotgun, which today is represented by a gun with detachable lock and single selective trigger.

New technology

Today’s workmanship, of supreme quality, is applied to every rifle and shotgun which passes through the workshop and the hands of the craftsmen who continue to maintain and uphold the highest standards in the world of British gunmaking. Technology, however, still has an important part to play in the production of quality guns and rifles, and the latest computer-controlled milling machines and spark eroders are used to produce the blank components for a firearm’s mechanism. That, though, is only the starting point, for many hours of hand-fitting, finishing and engraving lie ahead before a gun or rifle is completed.

I was privileged, while at Bournbrook, to see and handle several exquisite examples of gunmaking from the house of Westley Richards, including a pair of .410s with deep-carved, exhibition-quality engraving, a 12-bore with detachable locks and with a single selective trigger or two triggers, also made in 10-bore and 8-bore, and a massive .600 double rifle, weighing 15lb and which fires a 900-grain bullet. These guns and rifles are, understandably, of a quality which must command a price commensurate with the high standard of workmanship, but, as Simon points out, “The key to the future of in-house gunmaking is keeping the skills alive. If you start shaving off corners and introducing mass production and machining to a fine edge, with no hand skills, then you lose the beauty of the English bespoke gun. Retaining those skills and teaching youngsters and encouraging engravers to do really exceptional work are essential. All this takes time, and time is money.”

Westley Richards faces a bright, encouraging future in its new, fresh Birmingham premises and we wish them well. Shooting Times has been invited to visit the new works when they are fully operational next spring ? and it’s a visit which we are greatly looking forward to.